'It Has to Come to You': Why Jim Harrison Writes Patiently

The veteran author says Theodore Roethke's poetry is a reminder that sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're not.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

At age 76, Jim Harrison has touched every major genre in American letters. He’s written 10 novels, 17 books of poetry, classic essays on food and wilderness, screenplays for feature films starring Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner. Some of his best work, though, has been in that undersold genre, the novella—a form he became associated with after the success of his 1979 suite of three long stories, Legends of the Fall.  

Harrison’s new novella collection—his eighth—features a character who’s recurred in his work for more than 20 years: Brown Dog, an unconfined, hard-drinking wild man from Michigan’s wintry upper peninsula. First introduced in 1990’s The Woman Lit By Fireflies —the story concerned the fate of an Indian chief’s recovered body, perfectly preserved in the deep murk of Lake Superior—Brown Dog became one of Harrison’s most recognizable characters.  This eponymous collection collects the five existing Brown Dog novellas in one place for the first time, and closes with a new one. 

When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, Harrison used a Theodore Roethke poem to share a vision of how he writes. His process, like his protagonists, is unintellectual, wild, and elemental. He explained why he waits for years before word one, and how rhythm helps unlock his characters.

Jim Harrison spoke to me from his winter home in Patagonia, Arizona where he waits out the cold before returning, in the spring, to Montana. 

Jim Harrison: I read Theodore Roethke very early on because he was, like me, from Michigan. He lived in a big greenhouse that was owned by his father. He was a great big fellow—sort of a tosspot, if you know what I mean. Probably should have lasted longer than he did. But he was a marvelous poet.

To me, his work demonstrates the ineffable power of language, especially through his mastery of rhythm. You can see his gift on display in a great favorite of mine, “I Knew a Woman”: 

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;   
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:   
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

Why do these lines stay with me like they do? I don’t know. I don’t intentionally memorize lines. It’s not a question of memorizing the way one does at school, where they make you learn Kipling’s “If.” Or that other piece of doggerel, “The Song of Hiawatha,” by Longfellow. You know: 

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

A poem’s rhythm shouldn’t read like the ticking of a box. But people thought Longfellow would be good for teaching children English, so people push that piece of shit on their kids even now.

Good poetry’s appeal is more mysterious. I can remember whole lines of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, just because of the beauty of Joyce’s use of language. Roethke’s the same way. These lines stick with you for aesthetic reasons. It’s like you remember songs. You recreate their music in your mind. 

All this occurs in a realm beyond the intellect. Why is Mozart better than anybody else? There’s no logical reason. The same thing’s true in writing. Some people just have the gift. I can recognize that quality when I see it on the page. You know when you’ve brought it off. It’s a bit like Matthew Arnold’s saying that “A good poet can make the skin of your neck prickle.” But there’s no logical response to it. 

How do I know when my own writing has the music? I’m afraid that does remain mysterious. The logic of the aesthetic sense doesn’t define itself. I never thought of myself as a mathematician. I go by the credo “Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not.” This is something I can feel but not explain. I never know with a novel until page 50 if it’s going to work. With a novella, it takes about until page 20 to see if I’m really in motion.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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